Nova Scotia

Problem gambling numbers in N.S. see little change in a decade

Opposition politicians will question high-ranking government officials Wednesday about a report from Nova Scotia’s Auditor General critical of the province’s efforts to prevent and treat problem gambling.

Opposition questions bureaucrats over treatment programs and decision to axe My-Play

The Nova Scotia legislature's public accounts committee questioned bureaucrats Wednesday about the province's problem gambling and treatment programs. (AP Photo/Tim Roske)

Nova Scotia's most senior health official has revealed there are as many problem gamblers in the province today as there were a dozen years ago, even though the government has spent millions of dollars on prevention.

Deputy Minister Peter Vaughan made that admission during his opening statement to the legislature's public accounts committee called Wednesday to examine prevention and treatment programs for gambling addicts. The province formally started counting problem gamblers in 2003.

"While we are still completing our most recent surveillance report, I can share today with you that the number of people who are moderate and severe risk for gambling harms has remained steady despite our best efforts at prevention and treatment," said Vaughan.

The province is about to release new gambling prevalence numbers. Although Vaughan said he wouldn't reveal them, he inadvertently used the latest figures in response to reporters' questions after the meeting.

The CBC's Jean Laroche live blogged from the meeting.

According to the Department of Health there are about 50,000 Nova Scotians at some risk from gambling. Of those, 5,000 are experiencing serious harm. In 2007, the last time the province released figures, 47,000 Nova Scotians were at some risk and 7,000 of those were experiencing serious harm.

"Let's be honest here that there is no silver bullet. Every jurisdiction in the country, around the world, struggles with the issue of gambling," said Vaughan.

Members of the public accounts committee requested an update from officials following a report by Nova Scotia's auditor general critical of the province's efforts when it comes to prevention and treatment of gambling addictions.

Much of the discussion at Wednesday's public accounts committee centred around cabinet's decision, last August, to pull the plug on My-Play, the card-based system that was mandatory on all video lottery terminals in the province.

When the McNeil government ended the My-Play system in 2014, it called the gambling control tool ineffective and expensive. Video lottery players no longer need a card in order to play.

VLT revenues jump

The head of the province's lotteries and casino corporation, Bob MacKinnon, told committee members cardless play immediately boosted VLT revenues.

"Within weeks of removing My-Play ... we saw about 11 percent increase in revenue from the result of that decision," said MacKinnon.

When the My-Play card was made mandatory in 2012, revenue dropped 25 percent.

Repeatedly asked, MacKinnon refused to say if VLT revenues have increased since the initial jump after My-Play was axed last year.

The Nova Scotia government is allowing VLT numbers to drop by attrition. The policy is not to allow new machines to replace aging ones that are removed from service. That means there are about 125 fewer VLTs in the province than in 2011. That's the year the latest responsible gaming strategy was launched.

Former New Democrat health minister Dave Wilson would like to see the machines withdrawn faster. And he was convinced the governing Liberals ended the My-Play system to boost VLT revenues.

"Let's be clear this is about money," he said. "And we've seen a government that has been cutting organizations and support to organizations for very small sums of money that support people with mental health and addiction issues, so I'm concerned with the direction of the government."

'The alternatives are worse'

Progressive Conservative MLA Tim Houston shared those concerns.

"We have to support those Nova Scotians that need the support. And what's disturbing about today is we're seeing the Liberal government suck money out of the prevention system with no real intention, no plan to put it back in."

Although prevention efforts haven't worked to date, the deputy minister of health remained convinced attempting to ban gambling or getting rid of VLTs won't work.

"That alternatives are worse," said Vaughan. "The non-regulated environment is worse. So what we try and do is balance the regulation versus the treatment that's needed for people who have problems."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jean Laroche

Reporter

Jean Laroche has been a CBC reporter since 1987. He's been covering Nova Scotia politics since 1995 and has been at Province House longer than any sitting member.

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